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Saint Francis
at Marian
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Radio: 1450 AM
Saint Francis
Junior linebacker Justin Juarez leads Saint Francis in tackles with 42, including four for a loss.

Junior linebacker has been utility man for Cougars

It’s an appropriate first name for Saint Francis’s junior Justin Juarez.

Last season, for example, when he won the inside linebacker job late in the season when a starter went down with an injury, he was there, just in case.

This year, when senior linebacker Brody Kalbaugh fractured his leg, the Cougars needed a physical and vocal presence on the defense, Juarez was waiting, just in case.

And the name is even applicable to a coaching spot, if necessary.

“If he didn’t want to be a cop, I’m trying to push him into being a football coach, because his mind is his best asset,” linebackers coach Joey Didier said.

Just in case he’s needed, Justin Juarez could put on a headset.

“He watches more film than any player I’ve ever seen,” Didier said. “He puts in, at a minimum, about five hours of film work on his own. He’ll come in every day with a question: ‘Hey, coach, I noticed that they tighten their splits when they run this way;’ or, ‘Hey, coach, the back shifts a little bit in his stance to the left when they’re going to pass.’ He is an absolute film rat.

“It’s pretty rare in a kid. Usually, you’re usually trying to teach them what to watch and when to watch it. He’s calling me saying, ‘Is the film ready?’ I’m ready to watch.’ ”

It is why Juarez, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound linebacker, stepped in as a sophomore last season and intercepted three passes in the Cougars’ 46-14 victory at Taylor when Saint Francis, with two losses earlier in the season, was treading water in hope of reaching the NAIA playoffs.

“That started with me back in (Lowell) high school,” Juarez said of his film obsession. “I was not one of those guys with 4.4, 4.6 speed. I was 5-flat in high school. I was a little heavier. I figured I needed everything I can to be better and faster than them. I take that with me, even to today. I try to pick up on keys and tendencies that, even though the coaches are showing me, I see on my own. I see repetition in the game, it makes me that much faster each play. I might not be one of the fastest guys statistically, but on the field, I’m one of the quickest guys to react to it. If gives me that first step. It makes a big difference.”

Without the All-America Kalbaugh, who is expected to return Saturday when No. 7 Saint Francis (4-1) faces No. 1 Marian (5-0), Juarez has taken the defensive leadership role. He is No. 1 in solo (16) and overall (42) tackles.

He has four tackles for a loss. He has been in on a sack, broken up a pass, hurried a quarterback into an incompletion and forced a fumble.

“He’s a smart kid,” defensive coordinator Warren Maloney said. “He understands the game plan. He understands what we’re trying to accomplish. He executes our plan. He’s a guy that when he comes off on the sidelines, there are things that he notices or that he can see from a player’s perspective that maybe we haven’t picked up on from the (press) box or on the sidelines yet. He’s going to give me whatever information he has. He’s very good at that of this is what I’m seeing and this is how they’re doing things.”

stwarden@jg.net

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